Budget Travel: How Low Can You Go?

Marysol Castro opts for a hostel with bunk beds, bar and indoor pool.

March 22, 2009— -- When given the assignment to take an adventure trip on the cheap, I was nervous, I have to admit. I'm seven months pregnant, flying is not so much fun and my cohorts had taken up all the Spanish-speaking places I would have loved to have visited. The big boss said "go to Europe!" -- and since the dollar is doing so well there (not!), how could I say no?

It turns out I could travel to Europe -- Italy of all places -- and not break the bank. Florence was my destination of choice. My producer, Courtney, thought we should try out "designer hostels." We had to save money on something. Now, I've stayed in hostels in developing nations. They're not so nice. They rarely have hot water and you usually have to share everything with everyone. I'm 34 years old, and I've since stayed at places nicer than hostels. I wasn't sure what a designer hostel, even in a posh city like Florence, would have to offer.

Click here to find out where Marysol stayed, what she ate and what she did in Florence, Italy.

The best hot shower ever -- that's what! Plus the hostel in Florence had a swimming pool, a bar and lounge, clean bedsheets and a private bath and bedroom. Granted, we had bunk beds, but Courtney agreed to take the top bunk. Thanks, Court! For 30 euros a night, it wasn't bad. Dare I say it was nice.

In 48 hours, I managed to do a lot. I knew there was a lot of art to take in and food to digest. This would require a lot of euros too--or so I thought. It turns out for every museum that costs from eight to 20 euros, there are piazzas and gardens boasting the same beautiful artwork for free. Yeah, I missed the Ufizzi Museum, but I got to see Neptune in all his glory, a church Michaelangelo built with his own hands, endless statues, sculptures and architecture. And I saw it all for free.

The one place I did shell out some cash: The Duomo. This church is spectacular, and I had to go to the top. Some eight euros and 463 steps later, I made it to the top of one of the oldest structures in Europe. And the view from the top left me breathless (although that could have been all those steps as well). When you're up there looking out at Florence, it feels like you're living in a painting. And seeing the majesty of the city from on high reminded me of how incredibly young our country is and how incredibly older, and in some ways wiser, Italy is.

Food was a big part of the trip. Turns out I could get some delicious Florentine dishes for dirt cheap and, in some cases, for free. When eating breakfast or lunch at an Italian café, order and eat at the bar. There is no service charge. I had a cappucino and chocolate croissant for two euros -- you can't get that at Starbucks. I also had the pleasure of talking to the funny bartender, who politely told me to speak English when I tried conversing in Italian. Hey, at least I tried.

Pizza was also a good lunchtime alternative to a major sit-down meal. But the best lunchtime meal was a sandwich at the Mercado Centrale. Ths is where most of the locals start their day. This enormous indoor market has the freshest meats, spices, fruits, vegetables, oils, wines--I could go on. The best part is the sampling-- cheese, bread, deli meats, olives, truffle oil. I was able to finagle a sandwich out of the counter boy (OK, I had to pay five euros, but it sounded good, right?). Proscuitto, olive oil, parmegiano reggiano, aged balsalmic vinegar and sundried tomatoes on the crunchiest Italian bread. I'm hungry just writing about it.

For dinner-- the aperativo hour. Turns out locals are hip to this, so it has to be good. When in Florence, go to one of these nightclubs offering the happy hour/aperativo hour at 6:00 p.m. For the price of a glass of wine or whatever libation of choice, you can pilage a buffet of real food. I'm not talking chips and salsa. Chicken, pasta, salads, breads, meat, meatballs, potatos and so on. The best part? You could go back as many times as you want! So up my alley, being pregnant.

With all the food and occasional stops for art, it's a good thing Florence is a walking city. I not only worked off my food, I also saved money. The public transportation is not so great, and the streets are narrow and windy anyway.

I met some of the most interesting people in Florence. All of them artisans trying to preserve their craft. Roberto the shoe maker, Lilly and her husband the jewelry and bead makers, the glassblower and the woodworker. The last two didn't offer up their names and they were busy, so I didn't want to disturb them. The artisan enclave is as old as Florence. They have all taken an unfortunate economic hit because of the global economy. Still, you can see them working out of their storefront windows.

So I have to return to Florence and stay for more than 48 hours. It's truly a majestic city. I now understand why the world has a crush on the place.

Ciao, Firenze! Until we meet again.